It has been argued that you don't see examples of such preaching in Scripture. This is false. From Moses through the prophets to the Acts of the apostles, we see sermons.
We hear that this is a modern invention. It's not. In addition to Scriptural examples and precedent, we see examples of early church fathers preaching expository sermons.
But aside from that, the real crucial issue, in the context of the current state of the evangelical church is this: What do our people need?
And the reality is that we are faced with an epidemic biblical illiteracy and a collective spiritual maturity that is an inch deep. To say that the best thing for the church, given this very real problem, is to create in worship gatherings the opportunity for truth by consensus is just crazy. And dangerous.
Aside from the fact that the New Testament clearly says there are some specifically gifted to teach. Aside from the fact that the New Testament clearly outlines the oversight of the flock by designated shepherds. Those factors aside, even if "teaching by dialogue" was an ideal for a worship gathering, what sort of teaching would the current state of evangelicalism produce?
There has also been the raised the issue of authoritative preaching leading to authoritarian preachers. I think this has more to do with sin, ego and problem personalities, and the failure of elder oversight than it does with proclamational preaching. And one of the guys who has raised this as a potential danger himself admits that the sort of "teaching" that gets done in conversational settings these days is not good.
Dan writes, "[S]mall groups are a disastrous place for people to learn the Scriptures."
Well, they can be. And these days they certainly are.
What is required for sound Scriptural teaching in a conversational small group setting? Leadership. Doctrinal shepherding. Someone authorized and able to sensitively say at some points "That interpretation is wrong."
So the idea that dialogue, conversation, sermons-by-discussion is not as potentially dangerous and unscriptural as bad monologue preaching is naive.
I will go out on a limb here and say, the last thing we need in these days of consumerist, buffet-style Christianity, self-help faith, dressed up legalism, fuzzy doctrine, and biblical illiteracy is the removal of a gifted teacher with pastoral oversight proclamationally preaching in the light of biblical authority.
Mike Gilbart-Smith examines the reevaluation of contemporary preaching modes at 9 Marks in A Conversational Approach: Will it Preach?
In his review and analysis of Wesley Allen's The Homiletic of All Believers: A Conversational Approach and Doug Pagitt's Preaching Reimagined, Allen highlights five points of contention, problems and problematic dynamics of the sort of conversational preaching proposed. He lists them as:
1. A CONVERSATIONAL CONTEXT: ONE VOICE PROVOKES ANOTHER
2. A CONVERSATIONAL TONE: NO VOICE HAS AUTHORITY
3. A CONVERSATIONAL HIERARCHY: NO VOICE MAY LEAD
4. A CONVERSATIONAL FORMAT: EVERY VOICE MUST BE HEARD
5. A CONVERSATIONAL HERMENEUTIC: THE TEXT HAS NO VOICE
He is outlining that conversational preaching has a whole set of philosophical, constructive, and theological deficiencies its own. And while conversation is important, indeed necessary, in communities of faith, he demonstrates that refashioning the preaching in a worship gathering in this new mode can have profound, detrimental effects on the way the community is shepherded and on the way the community views Scripture itself.
Gilbart-Smith eventually concludes, rather rightly I think, "Many of those who advocate conversational preaching say that it is necessary within the present cultural climate because of postmodernism. People can no longer sit and listen to one voice. No! Postmodernism has made authoritative preaching more important than ever," and goes on to say:
In a context where texts are presumed to have no meaning, where all authority is relative, where no voice is more authoritative than any other, only authoritative preaching will open up the biblical worldview to a postmodern world. God’s voice must be heard with closed mouths. Salvation is not something that we ‘find’ through a collaborative community process; it’s been initiated, declared, and made effective by the one sovereign Lord. While we were still sinners, he took the initiative in sending his Son to die for us. We were confident in our own view of the world and unable to hear his voice, so the Word came.
The gospel confronts the relativistic assumptions of a postmodern age. There is only One source of authority. "There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all" (Eph 4:4-6). I wonder if the muddle of so many voices is one of the reasons why Pagitt’s book offers no clear expression of the gospel, even though he claims to be evangelical.
In authoritative expositional preaching the question is not "what are the congregation’s perspectives upon this text," but "what is this text’s perspective upon the congregation." In short, I highly recommend engaging with the congregation in conversation before and after the sermon. I highly recommend using one’s words to engage the lives of the congregation throughout the sermon. But if the symbolism of authoritative preaching (one Biblical voice addressing the congregation) is lost, then God’s authority to address his people will itself soon be marginalized.
A conversational approach may comfort, engage, and affirm. But, in the end, it will not preach.
I've explored other, more theological and philosophical reasons for proclamational preaching as the centerpiece of our worship gatherings elsewhere, so I won't rehash them here. But as a community of believers seeks reform, as we seek the face of God and push, urge, inspire, train each other to exalt Christ and focus on the Gospel, it has become more and more urgent that we not abandon the monologue sermon, but reform the monologue sermon to greater Gospel-centrism, to a greater submission on the part of the preacher (and by extension his community) to the authority of Scripture.
And none of this is to say the community should be passive receptors, containers to be filled with information. None of this is to say we shouldn't test what we've been taught, talk it out, use the community as the context for "field testing" theology, work at iron sharpening iron, hold our teachers accountable, etc. It is only to say that the worship gathering is not the right forum for the discussion.
I've been re-reading Mark Driscoll's Confessions of a Reformission Rev lately. It is for me these days what Bill and Lynne Hybels's Rediscovering Church was for me ten years ago -- inspirational, instructional, confirmational, informational, and practical. Like in the Hybels book, the storied approach to the pioneering why's and how's of starting and growing a church really resonates with me. Maybe it's my (relative) youth, maybe it's my (relative) inexperience; I'm a fan of the pastoral bildungsroman.*
And so much of what Driscoll chronicles in the narrative of Mars Hill Seattle's genesis and development in Confessions parallels many of the landmark crises of leadership and vision I am praying and sorting through with Element's ministry. (The blog-world is not the first place I encountered the idea of replacing delivered messages with discussion.)
In his unique Driscollian manner, he writes of his own handling of the monologue/dialogue dilemma:
We continued to meet on Sunday nights until Christmas, when some of the arty types started complaining that there was a preaching monologue instead of an open dialogue, as would become popular with some emerging pastors a few years later. This forced me to think through my theology of preaching, spiritual authority, and the authority of Scripture. I did an intense study of the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament commands regarding preaching and teaching. In the end, I decided not to back off from a preaching monologue but instead to work hard at becoming a solid long-winded, old school Bible preacher that focused on Jesus. My people needed to hear from God's Word and not from each other in collective ignorance like some dumb chat room.
He puts it bluntly, but the between the lines reality is instructive also. Rather than dismiss criticism of proclamational preaching out of hand, it should, as all things should, stir us to critical thinking and send us back into the authority of the written Word and our submission to it.
5 Reasons for Sermon-Centric Worship
More on Sermon-Centric Worship
* Look it up!